executive woman leader being onboarded into her new company, coming in from her past role as an external CEO

Client Story

How We Did It: Successfully Onboarding an External CEO

Learn how one organization successfully selected and onboarded an external CEO.

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The Need

One organization had always promoted CEOs from within. But with its move to a more global focus, the company needed someone in the top role with strong experience leveraging international markets. 

The Solution

The company had a shortlist of selected candidates and DDI assessed each with behavioral CEO simulation. Then, the deep assessment data helped the company strategically select and onboard the new CEO.

The Result

With plenty of support from the senior team and the board, the company's new CEO got up to speed quickly with a targeted development plan for continued growth. He is thriving in his role and driving the internationalization of the company. 

In this How We Did It video, Chris Helm, consulting leader with DDI Europe, shares how one organization successfully selected and onboarded an external CEO.

The company had always promoted internal successors for the top role, but when the business needed to shift to a more international focus, they needed someone with past success to lead the charge. Learn how DDI helped this company assess their shortlist of top external candidates and then how the assessment data helped them choose the best candidate and create a targeted development plan to ensure success.

Learn about DDI's CEO assessment and development solutions. 


Beth Almes:        

Hi everyone and welcome to How We Did It, where we share exciting client stories where we've gotten to work alongside great organizations doing exceptional things with their leaders. Today, we're going to talk about recruiting and onboarding an external CEO, which is very challenging to do and leads to some unique challenges. 

And I have Chris Helm with me here today to talk about how we did this with a great company and saw some success as they brought their new CEO onboard. Hi Chris, welcome.

Chris Helm:         

Hi Beth, thank you for having me.

Beth Almes:        

So tell me about the business challenge that led this company to search externally for a CEO.

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, so great question. It's not something that comes up that often, people aren't going around throwing their CEOs out or seeing them resign. So it's quite an always an interesting challenge and one that we're really pleased to help with. 

So the previous CEO had actually departed at this point, so we were working with a European industrial with international operations and over time, the operations had expanded and the focus had really, really moved to leveraging those international markets. And the previous CEO had been resistant and he'd been quite resistant to that and become a little bit combative and un-collaborative with his board. So they got to the point where they parted ways. 

And we had an organization with an interim CEO in charge, someone who was already in the business, and a search needing to happen. Now this is an organization that has predominantly always promoted from within. Most people's working memory in that organization, they hadn't had an external CEO in all their time there. So it was quite a bit of tension around it, and they needed to get strong buy-in to the process and extremely strong buy-in around the new individual coming in.

Beth Almes:        

So how did they go about finding this person and then onboarding them?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, so they had used an external search firm for the head hunting part of that to scan the market, find the right profile of CEO. And they were looking for someone who had experience in that CEO position already. They were looking to tempt someone across, and I mean, the people who were involved in it, everybody at the top of the house, the Chairman of the Board was involved, the CHRO, other key players and key stakeholders in it. So they were very, very involved from the start and they were partnering to drive that process. 

And the reason DDI were involved, DDI had a track record working in that organization doing assessments for development purposes, for succession planning and so they knew us and we were tried and trusted. There was also the added element of, we would bring that element of objectivity that's very difficult for a head hunter to do. They've got the network, they can bring the right people to the table, and then we can bring a level of objectivity in terms of really, really getting to what the right candidate would look like and getting the data on it.

Beth Almes:        

So as they went through their external search process, we were kind of working along that recruiting firm, what did they do... What kind of experience did DDI provide to help them say, "Yes, this is the right person. We know what's going to happen when they come into our organization"?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, so there's a lot of things we need to do to be predictive out this, because you can go out there, you can scan the market, you can find out exactly what people have done in the past, but it's really not a cookie cutter exercise where we can take something and say, "Well, we've done this before, or this is what a CEO looks like. Let's put him in your organization." It's simply not like that. 

So the needs of this organization were very nuanced. They were talking about internationalization, they were talking about how do we do this through a very strong commitment to a people development strategy? How do we do all of these things? How do we create a high performance culture in this organization? And these are different challenges that some CEOs may not have faced.

You have CEOs who are great at turnaround, you have CEOs who are great at really pushing that process efficiency, freeing up capital in an organization and making them really efficient. This challenge was different. So and looking around, the market, isn't brimming with perfect, ready-to-go, ready-now talent. 

So what you've always got to look at is, well, let's get the data on what they've done, let's get the data on what they can do and let's test them out. So we use a behavioral simulation, we're gathering behavioral data, putting them in challenges that they will face in this particular role in seeing how they respond. 

So we can actually get predictive about what are this candidate's biggest challenges going to be? And what are the biggest strengths that they're going to bring to the table? Where are they going to be secure?

And where do we need to look at that mosaic of talent around them, that will be around them in the organization to support their onboarding and to support their progress? So I've talked a little bit about the behavioral element of that, we also do deep personality inventories as well so that we can be predictive about the things that will come more naturally to them, those elements of their personality that will serve as a strength in that organization with the challenges it faces and those that will be limiting factors, those, what we call the derailers, those things that we really need to work with that individual on to make sure they have a strategy for getting through those, make sure they have a circuit-breaker for some of those less positive, less resonant behaviors that could come through.

Beth Almes:        

So they worked with this external search firm and kind of narrowed down their field of candidates with the right level of experience and the qualities that they were looking for based on past performance. We worked with them then on the assessment to say, what are they likely to do in this role? And we think that they have the right strengths. 

So with those things in mind as they then pick their new CEO, how did we help to onboard them and say, "Listen, everybody's got their strengths and weaknesses," how are we going to make sure this person is successful as they step into the role knowing what we know?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, that's a great question and great one to touch on. So there's obviously, we've got data, they've got data, there's data that was part of the search process and part of the interview process and some of the parts that they conducted, and then deep data from the predictive data from the assessments that we did. 

So there was that piece around actually helping them understand how all of that data plays together and how things play out after that. So recognizing we haven't got the perfect, ready-now CEO, you've got to invest in these people as well. You're investing to bring them in, but the worst thing you can do after bringing this person in is to step aside and say, "Come on superstar, off you go." It's a much bigger partnership than that.

So some of the steps we took before the CEO even joined the organization, some of the steps we took would ensure that he had a great understanding of the key insights from the assessment, so what was new to him, what was a surprise to him and actually help him get predictive about what his biggest challenges would be in the organization. 

At the same time, working in partnership with the CHRO to say, "How do you build this? How do you build the right frameworks here? How do you build the right support from the key people to make sure that your new CEO is going to start in a really successful way?" And we always recognize, many people talk about the first 90 days, I think the important part is recognizing that forming new habits and transitions, they're really, really important things.

Certainly when you have the extreme pressures of the most senior executive role in a new organization, it's just never a time to leave someone unsupported. So we built in a coaching and development program to support this particular CEO through those early months, actually to surface some of the hidden challenges, surface some of those things and keep a strong connection to those elements of personality, elements that we've been predicting through the assessment. 

So you're essentially giving that CEO a bit of a periscope to look over the bumps and to look around corners and see what's coming up before it arrives so they can make the best possible plan and be stepping forward in the most effective way.

Beth Almes:        

So, Chris, sometimes we have heard from Boards of Directors and other senior executives that sure, we'd love to have all this rich assessment data on our new CEO, but we're afraid to ask this incoming CEO... The CEO, they've got their own track record, they've done this before and they may be resistant to coming in. 

So sometimes organizations skip that assessment step because of that reason, they think that the incoming executive may react badly to it, what was this CEO's reaction to the assessment process and how that fed into his onboarding?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, so prior to actually running the assessment, we partnered really closely with the company and with the CHRO in particular, to say, "This is an additive part of the process, so you are going to engage in a full day in the life simulation. So you get to be the CEO of a new organization, stepping into it, trying to get a handle on all these things and work on what to do." 

You're going to do that, and you are going to invest a day, plus you going to invest the time to prepare for this, to actually review some pretty detailed documents and data to orientate you with us. So you're going to do all of this. Whether we select you or not, you're going to get some feedback from this that would be highly valuable to you, either in your current organization, in our organization if we select you, or elsewhere in the future. So you're going to get that by answer, so that part of it was we kind of already done beforehand.

The really interesting, really nice feedback was this individual, the individual that was recruited was, was already in another CEO role, be it in a different kind of organization, and in running his feedback session about the assessment, he actually said that those things, he said, that there was such a realistic challenge and he was blown away by it. That actually some of the things in there, they are the kinds of things he struggles with and actually said the whole day was one of those kinds of days that he actually struggles with. 

So it was so receptive and so keen to hear the feedback and get the development support to work out that way through because he wasn't getting that in the organization he was in. He wasn't even aware of some of the deeper factors that were determining why he felt those days were difficult, and some of the things that he was contributing that was also making them more difficult. So he was incredibly open to the insight touch on it.

Beth Almes:        

Oh, that's amazing. So he's sitting there going, "Oh, so that's why that's happening, that's why I'm struggling with this or that." That's really cool that it helped him to kind of pinpoint, "Here's how I can be a better CEO, even though I've done this before, this is really how I can be doing this so much better. It makes sense to me." So it sounds like he's still fairly new in his role, but how is he doing and the organization doing so far?

Chris Helm:         

Yeah, I did the biggest thing, so far going pretty well. The biggest thing that's happening is there is a lot of conversation and actually in an organization that's trying to ensure that it has a strong development strategy throughout the organization, that it's putting a differential focus on its people, it's incredibly powerful to have a CEO who is open and is saying, "I don't know everything. And actually I'm counting on you and you and very many people to be able to support in that development journey." 

So it's one of those kind of things, if you are looking to create an organizational growth mindset, this is the kind of role modeling a CEO needs to do. I think without the coach support and without the insight from that assessment, I'm pretty confident that he wouldn't have started that way, and he wouldn't have started in such an open way and wouldn't have the buy-in and support of those people across his ex-co and elsewhere in the business who can fill in some of those gaps for him in terms of that level of ability or the level of drive that he needs to bring in certain areas.

Beth Almes:        

That's such a powerful story, Chris, especially for an external CEO coming in, instead of trying to gloss over what they don't know and kind of fake it till you make it, coming in with authenticity and transparency to say, "These are the things I don't know, and here's where I need help. And here's where you are going to be valuable and where this other executive's going to be valuable." 

Really nice story, thank you so much, Chris, for sharing this today. I think this will be so valuable for a lot of organizations.

Chris Helm:         

Great, thanks for your time, Beth.

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